Thursday, April 23, 2015

Cast Away on the Letter A

In getting ready to review a new season of TOON Books, I realized that I still had a couple from the fall that I hadn't reviewed yet.  And in the case of Cast Away on the Letter A, there will be a new book in the series coming out this spring.  So I wanted to make sure I took the opportunity to introduce you to Philemon now, so you'll know who he is when I talk about him again.

Just the title Cast Away on the Letter A evokes nonsense, mystery and quirkiness.  How, exactly, can you be cast away on the letter A?  What does that even mean?  Well for Philemon, it all begins with a trip to the well.  His father tries to pump water at their spigot, but nothing comes out, so he sends Philemon to the well for water.  When Philemon gets there, he is surprised by a message in a bottle that he hauls up in his bucket of water.  It simply says "Help!"  He can't imagine how it could have gotten in the well, but dismisses it as a prank.  Until more bottles appear immediately in the same well.  Philemon is dying to figure out how the bottles are arriving.  So he shimmies down the rope to get a closer look.  While Philemon's donkey, Anatole, mutters dry comments such as "Curiosity killed the cat, Phil." (p. 15), Philemon slips into the well and is pulled under the water.  As he is gasping for breath, a tide pulls him down deeper and deeper.  One of the next indications that things aren't what they seem happens as a shark swims past bewildered Philemon.

Now Philemon is really in trouble.  He wakes up on a beach as things continue to get weird.  After he wonders what time it is, a clock emerges out of the sand.  Just as rapidly, it explodes.  He believes Anatole has come through the well also - he sees a pair of hind legs - but they turn out to belong to a centaur.  The centaur mentions in passing that they are on an island, which really confuses Philemon.  Philemon runs after the centaur, trips and falls into another hole.  This hole has a little man in it, dressed all in green.

The man introduces himself as Bartholomew, the well digger.  He tells Philemon he's been digging wells for forty years.  Bartholomew was digging a well all that time ago, was sucked into a whirlpool, and never escaped.  He's been digging wells on the island ever since, sending messages in the bottles, hoping he can reverse the effect and get back to his life.  Oh yes, and he explains that they are stranded on the letter A...  Philemon thinks "What's he talking about?  He's off his rocker!  Too many years living alone, no doubt..." (p. 23).  As usual, I don't want to give away too much of the plot in my post.  But this is also such an intriguing book that I don't want to give away too many of the surprises.

TOON Books has translated and reprinted Cast Away on the Letter A from its original French.  Francoise Mouly, who is one of the publishers of TOON Books (but also Art Editor of The New Yorker), recalls "As a teenager growing up in Paris in the late sixties..." (p. 44), she would read the serialized versions of Philemon's adventures.  This story was originally published in 1972, and I was pleasantly surprised at how timeless these adventures feel.  The art has a slightly retro feel to them, but readers can interpret that retro quality as occurring because of Philemon's trip down the well.  That island where he lands feels very much out of time.  As the story unfolds, it is so odd and unbelievable that the reader doesn't expect anything modern anyway.  And the language is plain, so without any dated frills or vocabulary.  It works very well.

Just from the little I've mentioned of the plot, it should feel very fantastic as well.  When Philemon awakes on the beach after his trip through the well, he exclaims "That's impossible! A beach inside a well? But I'm not dreaming.  It's real sand." (p. 18)  He is already having a hard time distinguishing reality from the bizarre world around him.  And who could blame poor Philemon?  He sees a clock grow out of the sand, then explode.  He meets a centaur and a man who has been digging ditches for 40 years.  The influence of fantasy on this story is heavy.  When Philemon begins to hear Bartholomew's story, he says "Then you're the well digger in the legend?'  Philemon goes on to explain "Well, in my village, they tell the story of a well digger who never came back up from the well he was digging forty years ago." (p. 22).  So Bartholomew has become a legend through his disappearance.  And the island is also a place of legend and mythology.  There are also many mysterious elements here, including a bottle tree.  Bartholomew harvests bottles off the tree for the messages in the bottles he sends. 

This title comes from TOON Books' series called "TOON Graphics for Visual Readers".  This is a newer series, which was first issued in Fall 2014.  (I reviewed Theseus and the Minotaur here) and it is designed for a slightly older audience.  I found a Teacher's Guide to Cast Away on the Letter A on the TOON Books website, and it is as thoughtfully produced as everything they do.  The Teacher's Guide ties the book to the Common Core standards, and includes questions that help readers interpret the many layers of the story and the art.  One of the things that I found most thought-provoking about the Teacher's Guide was an explanation about how the story had been originally serialized.  The Guide challenges readers to find the cliff-hangers in the story, where the story would have stopped temporarily until the next issue. 

And, as always, TOON Books does an impeccable job with the back matter.  Inside the back cover is a list of tips for parents, teachers, and librarians.  One of the items noted there is that "Reading TOON Graphics is a pleasure for all.  Beginners and seasoned readers alike will sharpen both their literal and inferential reading skills."  That is so true of this book.  I may have recognized some of the ideas mentioned here, but there is an amazing compendium of elements on pages 44-45 for readers to engage with.  There is a small graphic to help readers tie the element back to a specific place in the story.  There are also page numbers for the citation, and information from other myths and legends that may have influenced the author.  This is incredibly useful for readers and teachers alike.  In her preface to this section, Mouly notes "I knew that in that first slow, careful reading, and every re-reading after that, I would be rewarded with a wealth of hidden treasures."  (p. 44)  Honestly, even with my initial reading (and multiple re-readings to write this post), there are most likely many layers and themes to this story that I've missed.  I'm grateful for the extra help in the back matter.

Philemon's adventure is created of fantasy with a kernel of truth in it.  And I haven't done justice to the book's sense of humor -that will have to be saved for another post.  Philemon is quirky, clumsy, disbelieving, but a lot of fun.  I am looking forward to reviewing another of Philemon's adventures this spring - catch up while you still can!

Cast Away on the Letter A: A Philemon Adventure.  Fred.  TOON Graphics, 2014.

sent by the publisher for review

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dreaming Up

I found a note in a pile of stuff not that long ago, reminding me to blog about this book.  It was more than likely due at the library, so I returned it and then went on to read other stuff and then promptly forgot it.  That's what happens, right? There are so many good books to read and write about, and I look up and two years have gone by!  But I found that note and checked Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building out again.  I am happy to say that this unusual, creative book has been possibly even more popular with Frances and Gloria this time around.  Dreaming Up is a book with so many applications - I am happy to share it with you!

Christy Hale had the clever idea of taking three seemingly disparate elements and connecting them on the page.  On the left hand side of each spread is a picture of a child building something - toddlers stacking cups, a boy building a house of cards, children bundled up while playing in an igloo.  On the opposite page is a photograph of a real house or building that has something in common with the child's creative play.  In the example of the children playing in the igloo, the photo across from them is of an astronaut in a space suit, walking around a domed shelter.  The picture is a little bit surprising.  It makes the reader question how the shelter and astronaut came to be there.  But a reader can also immediately identify similarities between the picture of the children and the space shelter.  Both are dome-shaped, with similarly-sized entrances.  And where the igloo has been created with snow in cool tones, the space shelter looks to be created in a sort of honeycomb pattern.  Circles echo in both sides of the page.  The children's fluffy snowsuits and boots also resemble the astronaut's spacesuit.
We'll come back later to the astronaut and the space shelter, but for now I want to focus on the last element on each two-page spread.  There is a piece of concrete poetry that ties the two illustrations together.  The poems are often shaped in unique ways, which helps to further engage the reader.  A poem connecting a sandcastle with La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona is shaped like drips of wet sand.  As a child, I lived in San Diego, and seeing the poem makes my fingers itch to dribble sand through their fingers.  But the poem doesn't just explain the child's activity.  Hale does an amazing job of helping the reader to see that link between the two.  Her poem, which reads in part "Towers twist high, sparkle with sea glass, treasures and shells." can equally apply to La Sagrada Familia, which we learn later in the book is covered in mosaic glass.
One of the many things that I pondered as a result of this book was the creativity that is shown both in the children's play  and the buildings that are highlighted.  The buildings that are shown are amazing works of art.  There are the concentric swirls of the Guggenheim museum, the stacked terraces of Fallingwater.  But there is also the draped look of the suspension roof at the Yoyogi National Stadium in Japan, which mimics the shape of a blanket tent hung over chairs.  What is glorious about all of these real-life examples are their inspirations - space, nature and our lifestyles.
But I was also amazed by the diverse ways that children build and use their imaginations every day.  We could all probably think of a few ways children build, and they are fairly traditional (stacking cups, blocks, legos).  But there are other ways that children construct, such as the blanket tent, sandcastles, and building with toothpicks.  While the book calls itself a celebration of building, it is just as much a celebration of creativity.
This book can be used by so many types of readers, too.  I hate the perception that "picture books" should only be used with younger children, and this book fits my belief perfectly.  Of course, you could read this book with groups of young children (although I'm not sure that children much younger than Kindergarten would really be able to get it).  However, as children get older, it could be used as a model for creating concrete poetry.  It's definitely a higher order thinking challenge.  Primarily Hale draws strong connections between the illustrations with her poems so readers have similarities pointed out to them.  But expressing those connections in words or drawing the architectural elements would also be fun ways to work with this book.
And finally, one of the things I love most about this book is its amazing back matter.  Each building is reproduced in the back, along with a description of the materials it was created from, or the elements that make that building unique.  There is also a brief biography of the architect or builder, along with some of their guiding principles and a portrait.  And perhaps my favorite part of these biographies is a quote from the architect that perfectly fits the building in question.  For example, that space shelter is actually Mars One, in Hesperia, California.  It was created from sandbags, stacked in a dome shape (which is also alluded to in the poem), and held together with Velcro of all things!  The builder, Nader Khalili, believed that "the best substances for constructing shelters would be the materials under the astronauts' feet."  The quote is "'Everything we need to build is in us, and in the place.'"  To me, it encapsulates the building perfectly.  There is also an excellent page of sources for readers to research, both for photos and the quotations.  This book might seem simple, but the layers are satisfyingly complex.
Dreaming Up: A Celebration of Building. Christy Hale.  Lee & Low Books, 2012.
Borrowed from Lewis & Clark Library

Monday, March 16, 2015

Starry Night

I have been an Isabel Gillies fangirl for a long time.  When I was separating from my husband a few years ago, I discovered her memoir, Happens Every Day.  Even though the circumstances were very different, I took solace in her words.  Even though I knew I was doing the right thing, she too had felt that odd heartbreak and grief in saying goodbye to what she believed her life would be and greeting something very different.  She felt like the much cooler older sister that I never had, whose wisdom and pain I could learn from.  I reread Happens Every Day earlier this year, because I had just read her newer piece, A Year and Six Seconds.  I put them on hold at our library, and it was then that I discovered that she had just published a young adult novel.  I put that book on hold immediately, hoping I would love it just as much.

When it came in, I started it right away.  I quickly realized that I had another problem.  I couldn't stop reading it, yet didn't want it to end.  It has some of my favorite elements of young adult fiction in its pages - romance and school - along with fascinating characters, an amazing setting, and parents who are cool but also know how to set boundaries with their children.  It feels like a big, giddy whoosh of a book, but it also has the pinprick of real emotions.  I couldn't get enough!

The story centers on Wren Noorlander.  At 15, she seems to be sailing through life on the outside.  She has a very tight-knit group of friends - Vati, Reagan, Farah, and Charlie.  Wren is an amazing artist with a blossoming talent.  She is secure in her place at her private girls' school, knowing she has a great talent, but still having to work very hard in other subjects.  Wren has an older brother, Oliver, who is a senior in high school.  Despite the fact that he is getting older, and beginning to become slightly unknowable, he still has a strong relationship with Wren.  And their younger sister, Dinah, is a pre-teen with a cooking show on Food TV.  But all three siblings are also quite normal.  The next quote is a little out of context, but it illustrates Wren and Dinah perfectly: "...then the door at the top of the stairs flung open to reveal Dinah, still in her uniform, hand on her hip, head cocked to the side.  'You are going down!' she announced, not looking surprised at all that Nolan was standing there.  I glared at her. 'Is Mom home?' I whispered loudly as I trotted up. 'Oh yeah, she is, and she's on fire.  She had to start knitting because you are so late! It's a total ten.'" (p. 157)  This sample is so big sister-little sister that it still makes me laugh.

And then there are Wren's parents.  They have interesting jobs to start with - Wren's mom has a pottery studio, Wren's dad is the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  No big deal, just the Metropolitan Museum of Art!  They are sophisticated, live in a large brownstone in New York City.  But here's what I love about the Noorlanders: they don't take all the opportunities they are afforded for granted.  They see all the amazing things they are lucky enough to give their children and they are clear about what those opportunities require of all of them.  Wren tells readers about how Dinah gets her own cooking show: "...Bravo called to say they were interested in having Dinah host a thirty minute cooking show.  Mom was repelled, but Dad, who is more relaxed about publicity and media and sort of everything, convinced Mom that it would only be good for Dinah.  I remember him saying at dinner, 'Nan, love, it's a wonderful life experience for her.  I don't see how we can stand in her way.'  My mother protested, 'I can stand directly in her way, David.  She is only NINE!'" (p. 27).  I read quite a bit of young adult fiction, and the parents are primarily absent, physically or emotionally.  Wren's parents may not know every single thing their children do, but they have a pretty good idea of what's happening in their lives.  I really like how connected Wren's parents are to Wren.  They may not always make the easiest or most popular choice for their children, and they are okay with it.  They are always there to supervise what's happening and support their children when they need it.  As a parent, I love their example.  It's a hard road to follow, but they put in the effort.

It's funny to me that I have gotten this far in my review without summarizing the plot.  One of Oliver's newer friends, Nolan, comes over to the Noorlander house after school one day.  Oliver, Nolan, Wren and her friends (Vati, Reagan, Farah and Charlie) have all been invited to their first Metropolitan Museum of Art opening.  It is a huge deal and the girls are besides themselves with excitement.  Then Wren meets Nolan, and things shift dramatically.  "' Who are you?'  Now this might sound weird, but Nolan's 'who are you?' did not come out was more like he was asking because he was enchanted with me, so that was wild - and nobody had ever asked me who I was  before, so I was way into it." (p. 88)  And she's off, muddling through her first love.  Wren and Nolan make some bad choices in their longing to be together, but those choices aren't totally terrible.  The night of the opening, Nolan talks Wren into ditching the party (and her parents) to go to a club and go dancing.  The consequences of that impetuous decision leaves Wren grounded and without a phone for weeks.  But it also leads to sweet scenes like this: "'Isn't it weird, how yesterday we didn't know each other, and now we are each other's person?' Nolan mused as he walked through the gates into Central Park." (p. 154).

One character I haven't yet mentioned in this post so far is the city of New York.  It is so interwoven into the story that it feels like another person.  After the above scene, Nolan and Wren stand under the echo bridge in Central Park and share their experiences of the bridge.  It bonds them - one of those initial moments in a relationship when everything seems to be identical in your lives up until you met.  But Nolan and Wren's relationship takes place in front of the city's backdrop: "We rode the 1 train up Broadway and he told me about his parents' divorce as the train rocked and screeched into station after station all the way to Eighty-Sixth Street." (p. 116)  "The air felt loaded in New York City.  It was one of those days that you feel not only that the temperature will drop but that something tremendous is going to happen.  It was a Monday in November and the sky was so blue it was violet, uninterrupted by clouds." (p. 4)  It's an amazing setting for me, living in a small(ish) Montana town with not a subway in sight.  For readers in most of the country, the teens' lives feel a little glamorous, full of a different sort of freedom that we ever taste as Wren and her friends casually move about the city.  For readers from New York City, I suspect it feels very accurate and real.

One of Gillies' strengths as a writer is her knack for the small details that make up our lives.  Wren describes her home like this: "There are Persian rugs running down the halls, and under those rugs the beaten-up floors are made from smooth, wide wooden planks.  Photographs and paintings hang on the walls from the floor to the ceiling, all mixed up." (p. 50)  Their home is eclectic yet cozy and you can feel its essence through Gillies' description.  Her writing is very concrete and real.

What I also love is how strong Wren's voice is throughout this novel.  Wren is often wrong about things, but she commits to a plan of action wholeheartedly. "I spent the next long time lost, feverishly drawing a barn owl rocketing into the night sky, shooting up, wings spread wide, soaring up up up and off the paper with one hundred of her feathers fluttering in the headwind.  If Oliver came upstairs, I didn't know it.  He might have come up and decided not to bother me.  I was somewhere far away." (p. 170-1)  Wren is full of giddy love, excitement, strongly held beliefs and emotions.  She is so endearing, and as the story unfolds, my heart broke for her in several different circumstances.

There is one other thing about Wren that I wanted to call attention to in this review.  In the beginning of the novel, while talking with her friends, Wren notes "I can never get names until at least ten minutes after I need them.  It's one strain of my other learning disorder: dysnomia.  I have that along with the dyslexia, dysgraphia, and a dollop of ADD." (p. 31).  Wren's learning disorders are definitely not the focus of this novel, but they are part of her too.  She has strategies to help her manage these: "...trying to zip up my backpack and go through the mental list that I am supposed to go through every time I leave the school so I don't space on anything." (p. 146).  Wren is matter of fact about the side effects of these - her impulsivity and her ability to focus on just one thing like her art are two sides of the same coin.  This story isn't about that struggle for Wren, but I like how it is presented here - as one small part of the whole.

I haven't even scratched the surface of the events of this novel, or the emotions contained within it.  But I'll encourage you to read this, to hear more about the Noorlander family and Wren's group of friends.  And I'll beg Isabel Gillies to keep writing about Wren and her friends, because I never want to leave their world.

Starry Night.  Isabel Gillies.  Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2014.

Borrowed from the Lewis & Clark library

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors

This year Gloria started Kindergarten in the same school where Frances is now in second grade.  We were lucky to already have a great relationship with the school librarian (who is a reader of this blog, yay!), so she wasn't surprised to have another reader on her hands.  Now we check out piles of books out of our public library on a regular basis.  But there, the girls check out as many books as they want, so there is very little actual selection on their part.  They take home everything they might be interested in.  But at the school library, Frances can only select two books at a time, and Gloria's class only checks out one book at a time.  I'm always fascinated by what they choose to bring home on those visits.  Frances tends to choose chapter books.  A few weeks ago, she brought home My Friend Flicka because she loves the movie.  I'm not sure she ever opened it, though.  She also checked out Just Grace last week, and actually renewed it this week because she liked it so much.  But two weeks ago, Gloria checked out a book that we both instantly loved.  I wouldn't let her return it until I had blogged about it (although the librarian was nice enough to let Gloria check out another book while I kept this one an extra week!).

I also want to note that this book was also published by Roaring Brook Press, who published the book I featured last week, Viva Frida. These books are both very cool pieces of art, and I hope that the rest of their offerings are just as magical!  I'll be looking out for them.  So back to Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors...

This isn't the first book about Bow-Wow.  Bow-Wow Bugs a Bug came out in 2007, and I only vaguely remember it.  But now, seven years later, here comes Bow-Wow again.  And he's not very happy.  Bow-Wow is rudely interrupted mid-nap by three perfectly white (ghostly) kittens.  They nip him on the tail, startling him.  Bow-Wow leaps straight up, and while he's in the air, the kittens steal his comfy teal bed.  They slip out the window, but Bow-Wow is in hot pursuit.  He races across the street, and enters an abandoned house.  It certainly looks spooky, built out of gray stone, with sharply pointed shrubbery surrounding.  There are many cracked and broken windows, but Bow-Wow knows it is the right place because two little white kitten faces peer out from upper windows.

The chase is on.  It involves secret passages, mysterious doors, and glimpses of white tails.  Also, sometimes he sees just a hint of the teal dog bed to spur him on.  Or so he thinks.  Everywhere he goes, kittens follow him.  They always manage to disappear as he turns corners.  The white kittens romp through rooms, just ahead of Bow-Wow, acting incredibly entertaining and very ghost-kitten-like.  Those white kittens prefer nipping Bow-Wow on the tail, over and over and over again.  Bow-Wow searches and searches for his beloved dog bed, surprising a burglar and scaring him off in the process.  It isn't until Bow-Wow opens the very last door that he comes across the reason those ghostly kittens needed his teal bed.  There is a whole floor full of rainbow-colored cushions, and Bow-Wow's teal dog bed completes it.  It's a surprising moment, but it's not the only one in this story - there is another moment when the determined Bow-Wow goes to take back his cushion.

What's funny about this blog post is that I told you much of the plot of this picture book just now.  But I've told you that without reading a single printed word.  Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors is a perfect introduction to the graphic novel.  The pages are a combination of panels and full-page illustrations.  The action is very easy to follow.  There is a clear path that guides Bow-Wow from panel to panel throughout the house.  The kittens and Bow-Wow have likable, expressive faces so readers can tell exactly what they are thinking.  The book is expressly designed to convey lots of meaning without words.

There is a limited range of colors in the book.  Most pages only have five colors - gray, white for the kittens, a tan for Bow-Wow, and of course teal, used as an accent color and also for the infamous bed.  The usage of standard colors also helps young readers focus on the main action on the page, or in the panel.  The pictures still show movement, for instance, when the dog sees a mannequin wearing a teal dress.  Bow-Wow believes that the dress hides his teal dog bed.  He darts through the dress after two kittens who have popped out of the sleeves to taunt him.  You can almost hear the thud as Bow-Wow inevitably knocks over the mannequin.

The color palette also does something astonishing for me.  The colors are consistent from page to page, which frees your eye to see all of the details Newgarden and Cash have created.  A kitten hides himself between a wall and a piece of peeling wallpaper.  I especially love a series of drawings that starts with a ghostly kitten parading up the stairs with Bow-Wow's teal dog bed.  Bow-Wow follows behind him.  As Bow-Wow starts up the stairs in an upper right hand panel, another kitten jumps to bite him on the tail in a lower left hand panel.  And after all of them race up the staircase, more kittens peek out of each stair tread - beguiling, yet a little spooky too.

There is a definite gothic feel to the abandoned house across the street.  Bow-Wow (and hence the reader) never knows what to expect.  There's a cracked mirror, leaves blowing across the hallway through broken windows, a closet full of teal junk, cats running in mid-air.  It's surprising, yet not.  The quirky details even extend to the endpapers.  When you examine them closely, each of the fleur de lis in the wallpaper is made up of ghostly kittens.  It's all clever, and intriguing, fun and sweet.

This book rewards the careful reader.  Those details don't all show themselves on the first reading, or even the second reading.  It's why this book is a perfect introduction to panels in graphic novels, but an experienced reader will also laugh out loud at some of the fun scenes.  Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors did a great job of surprising and delighting me.  We enjoyed every moment with this book.  Check it out if you're a graphic novel fan, a dog fan, a cat fan, a haunted house fan...or a fan of really cool books.

Bow-Wow's Nightmare Neighbors.  Mark Newgarden & Megan Montague Cash.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

borrowed from Helena School District library

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Midnight Library

I know that I am among friends when I relay the following story.  When I was young, I entertained the idea of many other careers (dolphin trainer was one of my more creative ideas).  But there was really no question that being a librarian was a career near to my heart.  I vividly remember the closet I shared with my little sister.  There were bookshelves inside that I kept in order, along with my very own card catalog.  I wish I could remember now how I cataloged each book.  But I knew enough from my experience at our public library to add title, author and a summary to the card for each book.  It was a natural thing for me, to organize and check out my own books.

Once I went to library school, and then began working in public libraries, I discovered that one of my favorite things to do was readers advisory - matching readers and books.  I just loved working with children and hearing what they were interested in.  This sort of conversation as we walked over to the shelves might lead to a whole stack of books as I heard what they had read last, what they liked and didn't like to read, whether they like to read at all, and how long the book was required to be.  All these things would get mixed into my head and come out as title recommendations.  Even better would be the later conversations, when they tried something and liked it, or maybe didn't like it, and could articulate why.  That would lead to more books, more conversations, and on and on, in an incredibly fulfilling loop of relationship between children and books.  In many ways, that is what I continue to do with all of you, my readers.  But it doesn't always feel the same.


The little girl in The Midnight Library is of course a girl after my own heart.  Starting in the endpapers, her world is stocked with shelves of books, swaying under their weight.  The books are interspersed with lanterns, an occasional helper owl and a ladder.  It's the sort of place that makes you want to slip in and explore.  Even better, the title page shows the young librarian, with pigtails flying, welcoming a string of library patrons.  Those patrons happen to be animals, but you can sense their excitement from their smiles as they approach.

The story is fairly simple - this library is only open at night, and is staffed by the little girl librarian and the three owls, who dash and fly around at her beck and call.  Animals visit the library in droves, but are respectful of the library as a place to learn. But one night things go a little awry.  A band of squirrels begin to play music in the reading room, and needs to be escorted to an activity room.  Then a wolf begins to cry so much at the plot of her book that the wolf's tears fall like rain (hey, we've all been there!).  Finally, at closing time, a tortoise believes that he shouldn't leave the library until he's finished reading his book...and he only has 500 more pages! We all know how slow tortoises are!  What's a librarian to do?

While I don't agree that the library should always be a quiet place, there are many, many things I love about this book.  First and foremost, I love that she is a young librarian.  It shows us all that children are never too young to love and be advocates for books and reading.  There is always such joy and enthusiasm on the girl's face as she interacts with her patrons.  I love that she is a problem-solver, without judgment.  The wolf is so upset by her story and tells the librarian "' Something very sad happened in my story and I can't read it any more.'"  But the librarian leads the wolf over to a storytelling area, and the read the story together, supporting the wolf until she smiles.  Finally, and what I love most about this story, is that the librarian is a valued and loved member of her community.  This Midnight Library is a community space, where everyone shares their activities and their interests together.  They trust her to be there for all the animals, and to meet them where they are.  The young librarian doesn't yell at the tortoise for trying to finish the long book, she gives him a library card.  She is patient with the noisy squirrels, crying wolf and slow-moving tortoise.  Each of these patrons has very different needs, and she is able to fulfill all of them.

Though the plot of this story is wonderful, I have to admit that it's the illustrations that really do me in.  First of all, the pages are a lovely muted orange - a very unusual choice for a picture book.  But because Kohara uses linocuts for her illustrations, the color choice works very well.  The linocuts involve a lot of heavy dark lines and print, and the orange just stands out perfectly.  And to add to the contrast, Kohara uses a deep blue as an accent.  It helps create the feeling of midnight, and it also makes The Midnight Library feel very charming, cozy and friendly.

The characters in the book are so endearing and warm too.  Because of the linocut technique, they are created with very few lines, but you realize there doesn't need to be a lot of detail to add personality.  The tortoise, eyes almost closed with the effort of reading, weights his page down with his flipper.  Behind him, the owl assistants ring the bell to close the library.  And speaking of the owls!  They are my very favorite part of the book.  The owl assistants are there on every page, hovering over the librarian, stamping and shelving books.  They really are the cutest!!!

I quite often buy children's books about libraries for my own collection.  The Midnight Library is one that I cannot pass up! Celebrate reading with this darling librarian and her wise assistants.

The Midnight Librarian. Kazuno Kohara.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

borrowed from the Lewis & Clark Library

Friday, February 13, 2015

Viva Frida

My favorite time of year has just passed - the announcements of the ALA Media Awards!  I love those few days before the awards are announced, when all over the United States librarians, bloggers, children and adults who love children's books are buzzing about their favorite titles.  Authors and illustrators are hoping their phones will ring at some ungodly hour of the morning.  Mock lists are popping up all around the Internet.  And then I love those days after the winners are announced, as those lucky authors and illustrators who have gotten the phone calls retell how it happened and how they felt, and we all rejoice with them.  I haven't heard how Yuyi Morales felt when she got her phone calls, announcing her as the winner of a Caldecott Honor Award and the Pura Belpre Illustrator Award.  But this book, Viva Frida, is a work of art and magic, and I am thrilled to share it with you!

I will tell you right up front that I was lucky enough to discover Viva Frida this summer, through my reviewing assignment from School Library Journal.  Ordinarily, I would never try to review a book on my blog that I had already reviewed for SLJ.  However, once I read this one, and saw how gorgeous it was, I wanted to write about it here.  It also fits so nicely with my interest in books that represent the Hispanic culture.  And once I knew that SLJ editors agreed with my assessment that this was a truly special book, I had to ask for permission to write about it.  I was so happy that SLJ agreed!

And I intended to write about it long ago, but as often happens around here, other books shouted more loudly than this quiet, dreamy stunner.  I even set it aside two weeks ago, to try and get a review written ahead of the awards I knew it would earn.  That obviously didn't happen either!  But it hasn't been forgotten, and I am taking the opportunity to celebrate it now.

You can tell from the woman gazing serenely from the cover of Viva Frida that this book is about Frida Kahlo. Many of the hallmarks are present in that initial shot - her monobrow, her bright, festive clothing, the knowing gaze, papel picado, and updone hair.  The cover image is of Frida, alone and isolated, on a background of scattered flowers.  But while she is alone, her eyes meet the reader's gaze, and you can tell that her secret life comforts her.

The magic starts right from the cover illustration.  By the way, I want to thank Roaring Brook Press for including the list of media Yuyi Morales used in creating this title.  There is no way I could have guessed at all of the techniques she used, including: "stop-motion puppets made from steel, polymer clay, and wool, acrylic paints, photography, and digital manipulation."  Those of you who are regular readers of my blog know that I am fascinated by the art used  to create books, and this one is no exception.  The cover model of Frida is a puppet, but again, her gaze is so human, so present.  It is uncanny.

I am really going to try not to describe every page to you in this post.  It's difficult because they are so layered, so glorious.  It is also difficult not to want to describe each page's illustrations because that is where so much of the plot takes place.  For example, the title page shows Frida's desk, with a sketch, little stoppered bottles, an unfurled piece of leather and brushes. Also, just peering over the top edge of the desk is an inquisitive monkey, holding out a silver key in an enticing manner.  The monkey could be stealing the key off the desk, or holding it out for Frida to take.  Regardless, it is there that the "story" begins. 

As I mentioned before, the story line is primarily conveyed visually.  The text is bilingual, and comprised of "I statements" about Frida and her drive to create.  It is spare, with only two or three words per double-paged spread.  The text draws you into Frida's mind, heart and soul.  "I play/I know/I dream."  The text is poetic, and floats in space visually, leaving the reader plenty of room to admire the result of Frida's creativity.  The English words are in a heavy black font, with the Spanish equivalent hovering above in a ghostly gray or white.  The effect is dreamy.

To add to the text are Morales' illustrations.  For those of us familiar with Kahlo's life story and artistic themes, the book is instantly recognizable.  Diego Rivera is shown working in his overalls, sharing an artistic space with her.  As Frida explores her own creativity, you see her animals surrounding her, playing with her.   At one point, she and that endearing monkey get out a skeleton puppet to play with, as that monkey tangles in the strings.  Halfway through the book, at the moment when the text reads "Sueño= I dream", the art changes.  In the first half, the illustrations are clearly realistic representations of Frida's life.  Frida and Diego are puppets and their studio space and actions are clearly based in the tangible world.  But as soon as Frida begins to dream, things shift.  Frida's eyes are closed, and her animal companions stare transfixed at painted versions of Frida soaring above her own dreaming head.  As the pages continue, more and more of each spread is created through paintings.  The soaring Frida sees a fawn whose leg has been pierced by an arrow.  She swoops down to rescue it, and of course it returns to her "real life" with Frida, to become part of her menagerie.

In one of the last spreads, Frida says "que amo = that I love".  It is my favorite picture - Frida's eyes are closed in contentment, Diego kissing her on the cheek while the animals also look on in adoration.  And because Frida loves, she also creates, something that is so engrained in her soul, in her personality.  Frida is creativity.

There is an author's note at the end of the book, called "My Frida Kahlo".  It is written in both English and Spanish.  I love this author's note because I think it brings Kahlo's deeply thematic, layered work to life for young readers.  Morales admits "When I was younger, I often found her paintings tortuous and difficult to understand."  That simple statement allows readers to realize that admiring someone's art doesn't mean you always have to understand it.  Morales gives some basic facts about Kahlo's life and art in this note before showing how much Frida Kahlo inspired her: "Did she know how many artists she influenced with her courage and her ability to overcome her own limitations?"

Another thing I love about this book is its flexibility.  For those who know nothing about Kahlo's life, it can stand as poetry, as a self-affirmation.  It can be shared with young readers as part of an art appreciation unit, or during Hispanic Heritage or Women's History Months.  But for the older reader in a high school art class, or for someone who has studied Frida Kahlo's biography, the book really shines. There are so many layers to the art included here, so many things to discuss in the words and pictures I could go on and on.  It is so lucky for all of us that Yuyi Morales chose Frida Kahlo new life here.  It is magic you'll never forget.

Viva Frida.  Yuyi Morales; photography by Tim O'Meara.  Roaring Brook Press, 2014.

sent by publisher through School Library Journal

Saturday, January 24, 2015


Did you know today is National Readathon Day??  I have been meaning to blog about the fact that I am ready to participate in this readathon, sponsored by Penguin Random House.  But the girls had a very short week of school scheduled, coupled with the fact that both Frances and Gloria got sick with croup and colds this week.  So the week has gone way too fast!

So the readathon starts at 12noon and goes until 4pm.  It's only four hours, which makes it very doable for someone like me.  I can't wait to start reading.
I have two books ready to read for this afternoon...  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is my "grown-up" read for this afternoon.  Powerless by Matthew Cody is my teen book for the day.  If by some chance I finish both I always have plenty of backups!

I will check in once an hour, starting at noon, and let you all know where I am.  If you are participating too, chime in in the comments so I can cheer you on too!  Have a great Readathon!